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Have we lost the right to a private life in the UK? 

One writer reflects on a workplace scenario she can’t forget. It opened her eyes to a gossiping society in which none of us is allowed the right to misbehave in secret

By Rachel Connolly

Picture: Ewelina Karpowiak

A few years ago while I was working in a big corporate office in London on a temporary basis, I realised I had a strange connection to the main subject of the office gossip. Or the gossip at our bay of desks, at least. I barely spoke to anyone from the rest of the floor; offices always make me very shy. I’m not normally a shy person. But in an open-plan office the feeling of being watched, constantly, by lots of bored strangers makes me scared to do anything that might draw attention to myself. For example: talking about my interests; telling a joke that doesn’t land, or really any joke at all; wearing something ‘interesting’ or ‘fun’; being seen to have a friend from a different part of the office; appearing visibly sad; wearing different makeup one day, particularly lipstick or eyeshadow; or eating noteworthy lunches. I could go on and on; my neurosis about offices is boundless.

All I feel comfortable doing is smiling (beaming, really), being quietly polite and laughing at other people’s jokes. So from my first day I sat, beaming, at my desk. I quickly became aware that two other members of our bay were considered to be engaged in a flirty relationship, and that this was considered risqué because the woman, at least, had a boyfriend. I worked this out because early on my second morning – when only three people from our bay of desks had arrived – the person sitting opposite me, a middle aged man with beige, almost pale pink, hair and a meaty face, stood up and said: “Do you reckon they’ll be off for lunch together again today then, those two?” in a pretend whisper to the person at the end of my row. His confidant, also a middle aged man with eyebrows which looked like they had suddenly collapsed into his eyes (they always looked like this, I learned during my stint), stood up and replied: “Probably, and you know she has a boyfriend!”

Then they both made a face at each other before sinking back down to their desks. Obviously I was supposed to hear it, but why? I had no idea, so I pretended I hadn’t and continued pretending to work. But it became clear during my time there that it was true. The subjects of the gossip were flirty. They would slope off together for lunch and cups of tea and the water machine. Once even to the gym. They had private jokes and certain looks and would, occasionally, touch each other’s hands or faces, ostensibly to wipe something off or better explain how something worked (a thin pretence). Others at the bay (seemingly bored out of their minds, as people in offices often are) would talk ceaselessly about it in their absence. I would smile and laugh along but rarely say anything, as I do in the office.

Maybe I have only worked in terrible places but things like this (frantic boredom gossip, boredom flirting, sometimes boredom pranks) have happened everywhere I have worked. Nothing too strange so far. No, the remarkable thing about it was that I knew the girl. Sort of. I knew who she was anyway. The person I really knew was her boyfriend. I had actually slept with him a few years before, when he was single. Ever since we’d had one of those relationships where we would like each other’s posts on social media and sometimes, in the middle of the night, he might send me a thumbs up sticker over Facebook messenger or say: “You up?”. Sometimes I would do the same. If we saw each other around we would catch up. He wasn’t a friend, exactly, but I knew him well enough. Well enough to tell him, definitely. I knew who she was from occasionally perusing his Facebook photos.

I wondered if I should tell him for about half a day and decided not to. Part of me thought it might sound like a weird lie and I didn’t want to be called crazy. A “crazy bitch”, even. Mostly, though, it just seemed like the wrong thing to do. I decided that the salaciousness of what was essentially an office flirt was being unduly amplified by the way everyone talked about it. What harm were they doing, really? What business was it of mine, when I only really knew who she was from low level snooping anyway? Let them enjoy the distraction, I thought. I told a few friends at the pub and we had a laugh about it (I’m not a saint). I didn’t expect to think about it much again when I finished my stint at the office.

Years later, though, I find I think about it whenever a particular type of scandal happens. The kind that involves someone who has been caught doing something that is morally dubious or against a rule of some sort, but that would probably not have had wider ramifications had they not been caught. Or the kind that involves a years (or even decades) old transgression being unearthed; again something which would have had no wider ramifications had it not been dug up. As social media and camera phones increasingly function as a publicly operated surveillance network I find I think about it often.

“As social media and camera phones increasingly function as a publicly operated surveillance network I find I think about it often”

For example: a few months ago, when the Love Island star Kaz Crossley was filmed doing coke in Dubai by an associate who sold the footage to The Sun; recently when someone tweeted the name of a drag queen who they had spotted not washing their hands in a club; a few years ago when Diane Abbott was photographed drinking a tin of G&T on the train; each time during the pandemic that one of the various work zoom related mishaps happened; during a recent Twitter storm over whether or not train-spotting influencer Francis Bourgeois is only pretending to like trains for fame, since people found old photos in which he appeared trendier than his persona now; and in a recent conversation I had about the Ashley Madison leak from 2015, in which married people who were using the site to browse for, or conduct, an affair had their identities published.

In some of these instances, when you state what happened plainly, it is hard to see why anyone cared. The interest generated is, I think, the result of a boredom analogous to that which makes office gossip so frantic, among people who spend so much time talking on social media they are always in danger of running out of things to say. Others are examples of how standards or rules which are framed as impassively neutral do not apply evenly to everyone.

Drinking alcohol on the train, for example, is illegal but widespread. As the first black woman MP, Diane Abbott has been endlessly harassed by tabloids and trolls who blew the story up. But imagine a photo of Boris Johnson drinking a can of G&T on the train, would the Daily Mail frame this as anti-social law breaking or cheeky fun? Likewise when old Tweets emerge as a means to discredit someone this is presented as a kind of clinically impartial procedure. The reality is that many people’s history of early internet behaviour would not survive any scrutiny, but they escape the spotlight applied to some of these examples by not drawing attention to themselves, even to call out injustice. A culture addicted to the spectre of hypocrisy and gotcha moments is a fundamentally dishonest one. People get away with affairs all the time too, and who is to say this is not for the best?

These are all instances in which (at least some people thought) someone had done something wrong but I found myself questioning the value of their actions being exposed. Sometimes because my gut feeling about the infraction was: So what? Sometimes because I thought: Haven’t we all done something like that? Often because the revelation seemed cynical, like it served a purpose other than justice or preventing wrongdoing or whatever it was marketed as doing. Really because, while we talk about privacy as a valuable thing for people who haven’t done anything wrong (those people who have nothing to fear because they have nothing to hide, if they exist), I have come to realise that I believe there is value in us having the freedom to do bad things too.

When I found an academic paper ‘Privacy and the Importance of ‘Getting Away With It’ by Cressida Gaukroger, a moral philosopher who has taught at Oxford University, arguing that the freedom privacy affords us to be bad is a good thing, I wanted to speak to her. “If we watch everything that somebody does, we’re going to find things that we can criticise. We can’t be the morally best person, the best customer, the best employee, every second of the day.” she tells me, over Zoom. She goes on to talk about the corrosiveness of the constant, low level surveillance we are growing accustomed to. “It’s very hard to flourish and enjoy your life under that kind of anxiety where you don’t feel like you can make unobserved decisions,” she says. I think of myself beaming in the office, desperate not to attract any attention or judgement, and the broader twitchiness of a society in which, if you don’t wash your hands after using the toilet in a nightclub, someone might try to engineer a viral tweet out of it, tarnishing your reputation in the process.

It is something else she says, though, that I continue to think about long after our call, about human nature and what it means to let ourselves be the way we are: “There are lots of things that give us happiness which aren’t morally good things. People do take pleasure in morally good things, like helping others, but we can also get a lot of pleasure from doing things that are vicious, or from something like an affair.”

There is an obvious dishonesty to the spectacle of catching someone out: the great pretence that most people never do anything they shouldn’t. But there is a more subtle one too: the idea that catching someone out is inherently better, in some way, than letting them get away with whatever it is they’re doing; the idea that punishment has more value than pleasure.

While writing this I checked up on the couple from my office story (the actual couple, not the boredom office gossip one) via Facebook. They are still together, they seem happy.